P.J. Fleck’s tenure as head football coach at the University of Minnesota will not be defined by an introductory news conference or a couple of enthusiastic visits to watch basketball and rally the student section at Williams Arena. That’s not to say that Fleck didn’t put on a Rose Bowl-quality performance during his first weekend in Minneapolis.
By all accounts, Fleck generated genuine excitement on a campus that needs healing and hope for a better future in men’s athletics after the high-profile suspensions of 10 Gophers players in connection with an alleged sexual assault of a female student.
Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra seemed to resonate. At 36 he’s the youngest head football coach among Power Five schools, but his impressive run turning around the Western Michigan program made him a hot commodity — so hot that he commanded a five-year, $18 million contract from the U.
Athletic Director Mark Coyle made that investment to put fans in the seats, upgrade recruiting, compete for the Big Ten championship and excite donors and alumni. He also thinks Fleck can deliver what Coyle refers to as a “culture of excellence” with more “integrity and class.”
Those last attributes are critical for a Big Ten university that wants to be known for its academic and research prowess — not off-the-field embarrassments in men’s athletics. With that in mind, it’s worth noting what Twin Cities native and Western Michigan player Malik Rucker told the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand last week.
“He has zero tolerance for people who disrespect women, whether it’s domestic violence or sexual misconduct,” Rucker said. “Every day, we had meetings, and they’d go for like 30 minutes. They were like life meetings. He’s kind of like a life coach. And those meetings have impacted a lot of players for their whole life.”
Those are comforting words after the events of the past month in the U’s football program. Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys left the overall health of the program in better shape than they found it, but the alleged assault in a campus apartment building on Sept. 2 — and Claeys’ handling of the aftermath — was not the product of a “culture of excellence.”
The U deserves better, and if Fleck can deliver, Coyle will have made a wise investment in a leader of young men who is more than just a coach.